When we think of weight loss, we tend to focus on our outward appearance. How much thinner do we look? How has our shape changed? How many clothing sizes have we dropped? Our outside appearance is where our focus goes and we believe our emotions will follow along. We assume we will be happier, less stressed, less self-conscious and more confident as our appearance improves.
In some ways that is true: when we feel better physically, we tend to feel better emotionally and mentally. But that isn’t always the case and this divergence usually causes confusion, anxiety and frustration when we realize that even though we seem to be losing weight or getting fitter, we aren’t any happier, calmer or confident.
For some of us, this unhappiness and lingering lack of confidence comes from our bodies still not living up to our ideal. We lost thirty pounds but we still have those “thunder thighs,” or now our upper arms look worse because our weight loss has drawn attention to our flabby “bat wings.” We look in the mirror and instead of seeing success, we see more ‘body issues’ due to the weight loss! Instead of being glad about our success and more confident in ourselves, we feel more self-conscious and less self-confident!
For others, we are mystified that, even though we’ve lost weight and gotten to the dress or pant size we’ve dreamed about, we are still unhappy and still feeling anxious. “Isn’t this what I’ve always wanted? So why am I still so unhappy?” We still feel like we used to feel when we were overweight and we don’t know what’s wrong with us. We conclude that we must be broken somehow since we’ve reached our goal and “nothing has changed inside. I’m still broken!”
In a lot of ways, this frustration and confusion is because our image of ourselves is inside out. We think that our outside appearance reflects who we are inside. We’ve probably seen hundreds of examples of this in society and the media, from Shakespeare’s evil twisted hunchback in Richard III to the more modern movie Shallow Hal with actor Jack Black. How many times have we seen movies where the villain looks slimy or deformed and every viewer knows instantly “he’s the bad guy!” There is a correlation between who we are inside and how we appear, but most of us believe that a beautiful outside will create a beautiful inside. Instead, it’s the beautiful inside that radiates outward.
A lot of who we are mentally and emotionally shows up in our physical appearance. This doesn’t mean all overweight people are insecure because there is something wrong emotionally inside but it does mean that fixing the outside isn’t always going to fix the inside. If you were an unhappy person before you lost weight, you will likely still be unhappy when once you’ve lost weight. This doesn’t mean you are ‘unfixable’ but it does mean you can’t fix the outside without fixing the inside. It can also mean that fixing the inside first makes it easier to fix the outside!
Happy people tend to take better care of themselves, and again, people who feel better tend to feel better emotionally. Elizabeth Benton (Chasing Cupcakes) spends most of her book pointing out this correlation. If you fix what is making you unhappy, anxious and insecure, it can make it easier to lose weight and ‘fix’ the outside. This is one of the reasons psychotherapy is a major component of Dr. Nowzaradan’s weight loss program on My 600 lb Life. While he starts his patients with the diet and bariatric surgery in order to get them as healthy as possible as fast as possible, the second and most important step is therapy. As he points out in nearly every episode, unless the patient deals with the emotional issues leading them to overeat, they will eventually go back to overeating despite the surgery. In fact, some of the patients who come to him have already had bariatric surgery, not dealt with the emotional inside issues and have again reached 500+ pounds. They thought that by fixing the outside (their weight), they would fix the inside (their emotions): in other words, “I’ll be happy once I’ve lost weight!”
This frustration and confusion is common in most of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients: “I thought having the surgery would take away my cravings!” We’ve gone through this ourselves when we’ve lost weight but still fight the urge to scarf down a box of donuts or bag of chips. It’s because for most of us the weight is the physical symptom of what’s really bothering us. Most of us would call ourselves emotional eaters but despite knowing our out-of-control emotions lead us to that bag of chips and box of donuts, we try to white-knuckle our way through life! While we may initially lose weight, eventually our emotions overwhelm us and we suddenly find ourselves halfway through the bag of Double-Stuf Oreos without realizing how that happened. The cycle of unhappiness and frustration begins again: “Why did I do this? Why can’t I control myself? What’s wrong with me?” followed by more emotional eating!
Not all of us need therapy in order to fix our inside self. For some of us, it’s as simple as getting away from a toxic person or situation. In my case, a lot of my emotional issues went away once I left a job I hated. While I knew it was a major source of stress in my life, it wasn’t until I got out of that job that I realized how utterly unhappy it had made me, how insecure my boss made me feel and how extremely stressed even when I wasn’t at work. I would wake up with panic attacks in the middle of the night over that job and my boss would call me while I was driving to give me a list of ‘things to do’ once I got in the office. It was expected that I would be at work on time (not unreasonable) and stay until my job was done, even if that meant staying until 8:00 p.m., despite her knowing it was a two hour commute for me to get home! When I did get home, no matter the time, I was usually emotionally drained and feeling like a failure. I was constantly asking myself ‘what’s wrong with me?’ about everything in my life! All I wanted to do was forget how unhappy I was and I used food to do that.
This is of course a simplified version of how I dealt with a major source of my emotional issues, but obviously not all of them. I had been an overweight emotional eater before long before I went to work for The Boss From Hell, and I still feel the urge to distract myself with food when I get extremely stressed now that I work somewhere else. The biggest turning point was leaving the source of such unhappiness and anxiety (The Job From Hell) and the second biggest turning point was realizing that food was a distraction, not a solution. Now when I feel the urge to eat something because I am stressed or upset, I look for a solution instead. Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding a non-food distraction, since not every situation has a real solution, but knowing that eating isn’t going to help is still a step in the right direction.
Dealing with the source of my anxiety and emotional issues was a huge step in getting cravings and over-eating under control. Even if I had a craving or urge to eat, it was easier to find something else that was enjoyable to distract me or just make me feel better about myself overall. The emotions were better controlled, the eating was better controlled, the weight loss was making progress and instead of that vicious cycle, I was in an ‘improvement cycle.’ The better I felt physically as the weight came off, the better I felt emotionally, which led to my taking better care of myself physically and the cycle continued!
Our stress and emotions will always be a part of our lives no matter and learning to deal with them is an ongoing struggle no matter how much we weigh. The key is learning to be happy in the skin that we are in now rather than pinning our hopes for happiness on some future goal or achievement. It’s not always easy to look in the mirror and love the person looking back despite the thunder thighs and flabby bat wings. None of us are broken or unfixable just as none of us are perfect. Just accepting that we are all works in progress can be enough of a starting point.